Oregon Transportation Commission to decide on Malheur County rail project

(The Enterprise/file photo)

SALEM – Three years of effort to open a rail shipping center in Nyssa now comes down to the vote of five people in Salem on Thursday.

That’s when the Oregon Transportation Commission is scheduled to consider final details about the proposed Treasure Valley Reload Center. Then, it will decide whether to green light the project, opening the way to nearly $26 million in state funds.

Based on the state’s requests for information, the decision for Malheur County is likely to turn on three issues. The state has sought assurances that Union Pacific Railroad is committed to opening new service to Nyssa, that there is enough business to justify the new rail center, and that Malheur County can round up the special refrigerated cars needed to safely move local onions to markets in the east.

Two of those questions – a pledge of service by Union Pacific and rail car availability – seem to be answered.

Last week, Grant Kitamura, president of the Malheur Economic Development Corp., said there are “cars available to lease.”

“So, do we have equipment? Yes, we do,” said Kitamura.

The development corporation, a public company, consists of seven local people chosen by the county court to oversee the rail center. Kitamura is also a managing partner at Baker & Murakami Produce in Ontario.

The rail center can trace its roots to the 2017 passage of a massive state transportation bill by the Oregon Legislature.

The rail reload facility is seen by many as a local economic game-changer where farm products would be trucked to the center and loaded on to trains for fast shipment across the country.

In September 2018, Greg Smith, Malheur County economic development director, delivered a preliminary plan for the facility to state transportation officials that consisted of an economic feasibility study, cost estimates and a site blueprint.

In December, Smith said he anticipated the money for the project would be released and construction would begin in the spring.

The project stalled in February when state transportation officials raised an array of questions about whether the center was economically sustainable.

The state wanted answers regarding where rail cars for the facility would come from, who would operate the facility and sought a firm commitment of service from Union Pacific. The commission also sought written proof from the county that the business plan for the center was acceptable to Union Pacific.

The commission was slated to make a final decision on the reload project in March but instead created new deadlines – in April and May – for the development corporation to answer the state’s questions.

Union Pacific pledged service to the facility in May but said it could not furnish express shipping or provide rail cars. The railroad also said it may not be able to ship commodities during peak times and wouldn’t provide container service.

Also in May, county officials confirmed they were in “active conversations” with AmeriCold Logistics to operate the rail facility. Either the development corporation or the facility operator would lease rail cars for the facility, officials said.

The status of the negotiations with AmeriCold are unknown and Kitamura declined to go into detail about the subject last week.

Kitamura said, though, that he was confident that the commission would approve the rail reload facility.

“I think we have answered all the questions. I think everything will be in place to move forward and hopefully quickly,” said Kitamura.

Reporter Pat Caldwell: [email protected] or 541-473-3377.

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